History of Dentistry in Quebec

Dentistry today is a successful blend of art and science. While the latter aspect is a gift of modern times, and more specifically of the past century, the former aspect harks back to the days of Antiquity. Archaeological studies reveal that toothaches were an insuperable problem that usually left victims bereft of the affected teeth, altered their facial traits and limited their ability to chew. Although early practitioners fashioned dental aids from available materials such as gold and ivory, these substitutions were unable to compensate for the functions that were lost.

Farmer at the dentist, Johann Liss, c. 1616-17

There were no improvements in dentistry until European barbers in the 18th century began to pave the way for modern dental surgeons by extracting teeth with the use of crude instruments. According to the iconography of the time, all it took was boldness and dexterity to attract patients suffering from the agony of severe toothaches.

In Quebec, dentistry was first mentioned in the accounts of Jacques Cartier's expeditions. During his second voyage, in 1535, the explorer spent the winter with his crew on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Deprived of fruit and vegetables, several men contracted scurvy, an illness that caused tooth loss and, in many cases, death. The survivors owed their good fortune to the Natives, who plied them with vitamin-C rich teas made from the bark of conifers. Unfortunately. the virtues of vitamin C in curing scurvy were not fully known until the 20th century.

With the arrival of Samuel de Champlain and his companions in the early 17th century, New France – or more specifically, Quebec City – benefited from the many talents of Louis Hébert, who cleared forests, planted crops, and also pulled teeth, an art he practised along with other founders of the colony, including Robert Giffard, the first doctor in Quebec City.

Dentistry in North America went unregulated until the mid-19th century, when some professionals apprenticed according to the recommended method: "indentureships" in dentists' offices. In the United States, dentists were recognized as independent professionals when the first dental school opened in Baltimore in 1840. Other schools soon opened in most major U.S. cities.

Recognition of training

The first laws recognizing the practice of dentistry in Canada were enacted in 1868 in Ontario, and the following year in Quebec. When the Dental Association of the Province of Quebec was founded in 1869, the profession formally regulated professional practice by setting out the minimum skill requirements for exercising the profession, developing the content of study programs and indentureships, and registering practitioners who qualified for the right to practise.

Starting with a modest enrolment of 15 members in its early years, the Association grew to 139 registered members in 1898: 83 English-speaking members, and 56 French-speaking members, who were, for the most part, established in Montreal (70%), Sherbrooke (10%), Quebec City (7%), Trois-Rivières and the Richelieu valley.

At that time there were no dental schools affiliated with any of the educational institutions. The indentureship program was still in effect, meaning that prospective dentists were trained by providing customer care in another dentist's office and, to the extent possible, by taking basic science courses judged essential to their training, which were offered only at a faculty of medicine.

The Association then faced the major challenge of convincing an institution of higher learning to take in hand the training of English- and French-speaking dentists. In the interim, a great many American dental schools had become affiliated with universities and were issuing Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) diplomas. The Association wanted to issue a similar diploma with the help of a teaching body they already had access to – the Dental College – and which was capable of delivering part of the theoretical and practical curriculum. Backed by these resources, the Association approached McGill University and Université Laval, which was located in Montreal at the time, requesting that they add a program of dental studies to their offerings. Both schools refused.

In 1892, Bishop's University of Lennoxville already had a medical faculty in Montreal and expressed interest in the project. The school created a Department of Dentistry, affiliated with the medical school, and placed Dr. George W. Beers at the helm. As an arm of the Faculty of Medicine, the program, in a certain sense, favoured D.D.S. holders, who were also allowed to receive a diploma of Doctor in Dental Medicine (D.D.M) upon the completion of two additional years of study.

The program was not as successful as expected because the school had to provide bilingual instruction, and there were not enough students enrolled. In 1903, Bishop's University closed the department and gave its equipment to Eudore Dubeau, secretary of the Association. Dubeau turned to Université Laval, in Montreal, and received consent to launch an affiliated dental school in 1904. He thus became the first dean of the school. Concurrently, Dr. A. W. Thornton managed to have a dental program integrated into the programs of McGill University, thereby creating a Department of Dentistry affiliated with the medical faculty.

Since 1921, the dentistry faculties of McGill and the Université de Montréal have taken on the role of training Quebec dentists. They were joined in 1970 by the dental school of Université Laval, located in Quebec City. Now Quebec is endowed with three dental schools that ensure the quality of oral health care for the public.

Founding of the Ordre des dentistes du Québec

In 1910, the Dental Association of the Province of Quebec became the College of Dental Surgeons of the Province of Quebec, after the pattern of the medical profession, which had incorporated itself as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Lower Canada in 1843. In so doing the Association put an end to any confusion surrounding the designation "Dental College," which was the name of the dental faculty at Bishop's University.

When the Professional Code was enacted in 1973, the CDSPQ became the Ordre des dentistes du Québec, but the new name did not signal a departure from the organization's role or its obligation to protect the public. The Order remains committed to maintaining quality dental services for the public and setting out strict rules of practice and a rigorous code of ethics.

This text was written by Dr. Jean-Paul Lussier.

For more information: Dr. Jean-Paul Lussier, La Faculté de médecine dentaire de l'Université de Montréal. 1904-2004. Cent ans d'existence. Un siècle de progrès. Québec Amérique, 2004.